Birmingham: Home of Heavy Metal

Home of Metal Logo

The latest exhibition to open at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery is celebrating the work and showcasing memorabilia about the Heavy Metal band Black Sabbath. The exhibition opens on June 26th and closes on 29th September 2019. If you want to visit it, then here’s the link to get tickets.

The band was formed in Aston, Birmingham in 1968 (not far from one of BMT’s heritage sites, Aston Hall) and is considered to be one of the pioneers and godfathers of the Heavy Metal music genre.

And speaking of Heavy metal, let’s look at the original Heavy Metal: Lead.

Lead has been used to make objects from since before the Romans. It can be easily extracted from its ore, Galena being the main one, which often includes silver as well. It has a low melting point (325 degrees Celsius) and is easily worked. It is still used today in plumbing, batteries, bullets, solders, paints, roofing and radiation shielding.

After the Roman period, the use of lead reduced until prior to the Industrial Revolution, then it became popular again. It was only in the 19th Century, that it was been discovered that this easily worked metal has a sting in its tail. It is a neurotoxin and will accumulate in soft tissues and bones. It will damage the nervous system and cause brain damage and behavioural problems. As such it is recommended to wear gloves when handling lead artefacts to reduce the risk of small amounts of lead being absorbed into the body through the skin.

After copper alloy finds, those made from lead are regularly handed in for recorded at the PAS. Out of the 21,269 finds that have been recorded by the West Midlands FLOs (WMID), nearly two thousand of those are made from lead or one of its alloys.

Tokens, Spindlewhorls and weights are the most commonly found artefact types. But Seal matrices, buttons, ampulla and toys have been recorded as well.

Here are half a dozen of some of the recorded finds from the Birmingham area, all made from Heavy Metal. (Btw Birmingham area includes Walsall, Wolverhampton, Sandwell and Dudley).

A bifacial lead token from Bloxwich, WMID-F94A6C.  Unifaced (one sided) tokens are more common than two sided, which makes this example quite nice.

WMID-F94A6C, a bifaced lead token.
WMID-F94A6C, a bifaced token.

An incomplete Ampulla from Aldridge, WMID-6D02A1. Ampulla are often found in fields or rural areas as it is suggested that the holy water contained within the ampulla would help protect crops and livestock from illness.

WMID-6D02A1, an incomplete ampulla.
WMID-6D02A1, an incomplete Ampulla.

A movable type printing block for the letter R. WMID-6CB757. Movable type printing blocks were invented around AD 1450 by Johannes Gutenberg along with the printing press. Gutenberg was the first individual to create his type pieces from an alloy comprised of lead, tin and antimony, the same materials currently used today. It is possible that this printing block could be Late Medieval in dating, it is more likely to be Post Medieval (AD 1700 to AD 1900), due to the style of the lettering present.

WMID-6CB757, a removable printing press letter.
WMID-6CB757, a removable printing press letter.

A possible dog’s head hawking whistle, WMID-1E0445, from Walsall. It is similar in style to the dog headed ewer spouts and is considered to be Medieval dating.

The dog's head whistle, WMID-1E0445
WMID-1E0445, the possible dog’s head hawking whistle.

Half a papal bulla issued by Pope Urban III or IV between 1185 and 1264, found from Wolverhampton, WMID-AC0922. As we only have half the bulla, it is hard to be certain which one it was. Papal bulla were attached to papal documents as a way of proving their authentication. 

WMID-AC0922, an incomplete papal bulla of either Pope Urban III or IV.
WMID-AC0922, Half a papal bulla.

A regular six sided die from Blakenhall, WMID-EE1826. A die is referred to as regular if the opposite sides all add up to seven. Dice are a hard artefact to date exactly as they haven’t changed much in function and form since the Roman period. 

A regular six sided die, WMID-EE1826
WMID-EE1826, a regular die.